The mission of this column—and a lot of my work—is to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality of football analysis. Football analysis—fantasy and reality—is often dramatized because there's a core belief that it's more important to entertain than to educate.
I don't live by the idea that it's better to be lucky than good. While I want to give you actionable recommendations that will help you get results, I prefer to get the process right. There will be a lot of people talking about how they were right to draft or start specific players. Many of them got the right result but with an unsustainable process.
A good example is the recent James Conner-Benny Snell analysis. The pervading thought after last Monday night was that Snell outplayed James Conner. While Snell earned more playing time, played well, and out-produced Conner, the film didn't support the conclusion that Conner played poorly as much as his offensive line got off to a slow start and he suffered a minor ankle injury that concerned the team.
Snell may earn another opportunity to take the job from Conner as the season progresses but against the Broncos and Texans defenses, Conner did enough to keep his role as the feature back and the non-film narratives did not come to fruition. Based on the process of studying what makes a running back productive, Conner did nothing to lose his role to Snell.
The Top 10 will cover topics that attempt to get the process right (reality) while understanding that fantasy owners may not have time to wait for the necessary data to determine the best course of action (fantasy). Still, this work may help you make wiser decisions that will help your team in the long run.
As always, I recommend Sigmund Bloom's Waiver Wire piece which you'll find available on this page, Monday night. Bloom and I are not always going to agree on players—he errs more often towards players who flash elite athletic ability and I err more towards players who are more technically skilled and assignment-sound.
STRAIGHT, NO CHASER: WEEK 10'S CLIFF'S NOTES
The article below will provide expanded thoughts and supporting visuals for the following points.
- Has Kalen Ballage resuscitated his career in L.A.? Based on how he's playing, the answer is a definitive, "yes."
- Jordan Reed looks like his old self and in a dreary season for fantasy tight end play, he could become a must-add.
- The Dolphins cut Jordan Howard and are rolling with Salvon Ahmed, a quick-hitting runner with receiving skills who lacks short-yardage skills.
- The Browns defense stopped Deshaun Watson on Sunday, but it was Nick Chubb who finished the quarterback's day with an unselfish play that helped his team, but probably not yours.
- Drew Lock had an awful outing against the Las Vegas Raiders, performing to the low-end of expectations I've warned about in the past. However, not far behind Lock on the list of underachievers is Noah Fant, whose history of mental mistakes is catching up with him.
- The Giants may have stumbled on a winning formula for Daniel Jones and it's similar to the Eagles' treatment of Carson Wentz.
- Expect more big-play passes and much lower red-zone efficiency from the Saints offense under Jameis Winston.
- Mike Evans is an excellent talent. He also has a privileged streak to his personality that has been prone to rearing its ugly head during his career. It did this weekend and led to an inconsistent outing that cost Evans and his fantasy GMs.
- This week's Fresh Fish: Seattle and Houston's defense are once again the recurring acts.
- Fresh Fish:
For those of you who wish to learn the why's, the details are below.
1. Kalen Ballage has resuscitated his career in L.A.
The former Arizona State running back arrived in the NFL as a raw talent. Big, strong, fast, and a sure-handed receiver, Ballage earned a lot of buzz from those who presumed the Dolphins would "coach-up" Ballage and within a year or two, he'd be a productive contributor for Miami.
Like a lot of raw running backs with a massive supply of physical skills and a shortage of technical refinement, Ballage flashed early on with big plays and generated excitement, but he failed to prove reliable from play-to-play as a decision-maker, game-manager, and runner in difficult situations where opponents were playing to stop the ground game.
As is the case with players who disappoint the first time around, there were a lot of snickers from media and the fantasy community when the New York Jets traded a late-round pick for Ballage this year. The jokes increased with the team cut Ballage in October after he missed multiple blocks in pass protection.
The Chargers added Ballage to its practice squad five days later and injuries to Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson, and Troymaine Pope led to the demand for Ballage to earn playing time. The fact that it took misfortune to three players before Ballage even became a consideration is not a reflection of his talent any more than it was for James Robinson, Travis Fulgham, Dak Prescott, Raheem Mostert, or several other players with a low draft capital or s rough start to their career.
While the point levied at Ballage is lazy analysis, it's true that past performance generates a rightful expectation for a player and the rightful expectation with Ballage was that he wouldn't prove helpful.
So far, Ballage appears to have figured out that the NFL is a career, and careers require dedicated work. Based on his performance for the past two weeks, Ballage has become more consistent at running with a style suited to his strengths.
He has also begun making links between his footwork and situations that call for it.
And he's proven useful in the passing game as both a receiver and a blocker, as limited as the sample size is.
So far, Ballage has been more fluid, more powerful, and quicker than Joshua Kelley and should continue to earn the lead role for the Chargers until Ekeler returns. Even when Ekeler is back, Ballage has the skills to complement Ekeler as the option in the Melvin Gordon III role.
Such an opportunity could sustain Ballage's fantasy value this year. This is Ballage's shot to resuscitate his career and so far, he's making the most of it. If you added Ballage, congratulations, you just earned yourself a fantasy RB3 with RB1 upside in any given week—and given those weeks include games against the Jets, Bills, Falcons, and Broncos, that's an exciting development.
2. Jordan Reed has done the same in San Francisco
The tight end position has underperformed for fantasy football. Last year's No.7 tight end in PPR formats would be the No.3 option in 2020. With this in mind, there's room for streaming the position as well as the occasional need to stockpile potential producers in 1.5 PPR leagues.
Like Ballage, but for different reasons, Reed has resuscitated his career this year. Reed has been a Pro-Bowl performer but injuries took its toll and Reed didn't play for a couple of seasons. As detailed in my Friday Replacements feature, the 49ers took a chance on Reed this summer and were impressed with how good he looked.
Reed delivered an elite fantasy performance in Week 2 but suffered a knee injury during Week 3 that cost him five weeks. He only earned limited playing time against the Packers in Week 9, but what Reed showed in Week 10 is an indication that he has returned to his level of play that he had in Washington.
In addition to making multiple defenders miss after the catch during Sunday's game against the Saints, Reed displayed elite coordination at the catch point and toughness against physical play.
Jordan Reed is to George Kittle what Kareem Hunt is to Nick Chubb.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 16, 2020
On shortlist for catch of the year (no weight given to situation—just flat-out skill)
My first Football SAT question..,#49ers pic.twitter.com/YVMQ0RUFRG
Injuries will always be a heightened concern with Reed, but he earns a Week 11 bye and should be in great shape for a schedule that includes the L.A. Rams, Buffalo, Washington, and Dallas—and Washington and Buffalo are especially generous to the position this year.
3. What to make of Dolphins RB Salvon Ahmed
Miami waived Jordan Howard this morning, who will likely find a team within a matter of days and even get a shot to contribute immediately. Howard never fit what the Dolphins sought from a running back, which should be evident when considering that Myles Gaskin earned the starting role.
Gaskin is a competent runner whose game is built on catching the football and working in space. His quickness, vision, and versatility are the foundation of his game and he fits well in a spread offense and shines best as a fixture in a two-minute or five-minute offense.
Howard fits best behind a road-grading line that pushes defenders off the ball and Howard can patiently press the crease and cut downhill. Philadelphia had that kind of line last year. The Raiders, Saints, Browns, Patriots, Ravens, and Bills have those kinds of units this year.
I anticipated that Howard would be a better fit with Tua Tagovailoa because the rookie quarterback worked under center and excels in the boot-action game, the Dolphins' line wasn't changing and it meant that this team needed quick-hitters.
This is why Gaskin, Breida, and now, Salvin Ahmed figure into the equation. The 49ers signed Ahmed, a junior at the University of Washington who (made an ill-advised) declaration for the NFL Draft as an underclassman, as an undrafted free agent. Ahmed couldn't beat out fellow rookie James Hasty and wound up on Miami's practice squad.
Ahmed's strengths are similar to Gaskin in that he's a scatback with change-of-direction quickness, burst, and receiving skill. Without a long runway to build up momentum, Ahmed lacks the power and contact balance of an NFL starter. Short-yardage is not his wheelhouse.
However, the Dolphins are opening creases on plays like draws and delays as well as creating cutback and bounce lanes that are more difficult for a back like Howard to reach but easy yards for a runner like Ahmed.
Denver, the Jets, Cincinnati, and Kansas City are all in the top half of the NFL in points allowed to running backs and these are the next four teams in Miami's schedule. Expect Gaskin back in 2-3 weeks, but Ahmed should continue to figure prominently if Miami doesn't add a bigger back who can break tackles against box defenders.
4. The Browns' defense stopped Deshaun Watson; Nick Chubb finished him
It was another week where the wind in Cleveland shut down the passing game and this was just fine for the Browns. However, it wasn't just the elements that stopped Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. Myles Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi, and the rest of the Cleveland defenses executed a good gameplan to keep Watson in the pocket.
Garrett was especially good, getting the best of Laremy Tunsil and displaying Pro-Bowl skills off the edge.
DE Myles Garrett used a double-up with the outside steps while dragging the inside foot to set up a shoulder dip and chop to work inside on 4th and goal to stop Deshaun Watson. #Browns @sidelinehustle, Garrett could play TE...ðŸ™ƒ pic.twitter.com/221eWJBc0F— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 15, 2020
And if that wasn't enough, the Browns had a pigeon as its secret weapon. He wasn't a prominent part of the game plan, but he played special teams and had the good sense to bracket Will Fuller V on a pass play.
I'm expecting the pigeon step up and deliver at home against Pittsburgh in Week 17, but that's only for Bloom, Lammey, and Keith Overton to be concerned with.
If Cleveland can generate offense, this team has the blueprint to be competitive long-term with teams that have dynamic runners at the quarterback position, including Houston, Baltimore, Arizona, and Seattle. Until then, the Browns better hope for more inclement weather and stick with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
Certainly, Hunt deserves credit for his skillful play. However, it was Chubb who put the game away with his combination of patience, athletic ability, and maturity.
RE: Lions-Falcons Ending
Here's how it's done.
Lock's four-interception performance against the Raiders has split a Broncos' fan base that, at this time last year, mostly wasn't as open to listening to tempered criticism about its young quarterback. However, Noah Fant deserves criticism for his play and his future as the Broncos' long-term starter should be questioned.
Many consider Fant a rising star. Physical gifts that do that. But since his years at Iowa, Fant has been a mistake-prone player when it comes to executing the details that separate players who optimize their athletic skills and become stars from those who perpetually tease.
If you've watched Broncos' games closely, you'll realize that Fant's best plays come on routes where he's running wide-open through zones or earning significant space between himself and the single coverage. He's not a contested-catch player at a high level and unless he's the subject of a special play schemed to get him open with misdirection, he's not a refined route runner.
None of these flaws kill his fantasy potential on their own, but it forces Fant's offense to work a little harder to get the most from him. And if the player that the team is working extra to put in a good position lacks the maturity, consistency, and on-field smarts to make the most of these opportunities, it's only a matter of time before that player loses his luster.
Fant hold nullified Lock TD.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 16, 2020
If you block the officials view with hands inside you might get away with it. Not here. pic.twitter.com/Uwuk1aEwk9
Fant has been hindered by a high-ankle sprain, but he continues to be the focus of targets that lean on his ability to run after the catch, so it's not the reason why Lock targeted Albert Okwuegbunam so heavily in the red zone and in contested situations. It's a secondary indication after studying Fant's tape that Fant isn't good at the targets delivered to the top options at the position.
Fant often looks like he's doing a math problem to figure out how his hands should be placed when attacking the ball in traffic or against tight coverage. Running, jumping, and displays of strength come easily to Fant. Applying these skills to make positive plays as a football player in challenging situations does not.
Fant may be on the cusp of fantasy starter production this year, but I'd rather take my chances with more complete options ranked near him who've had slower starts.
6. The Giants may have figured out a productive formula for Daniel Jones
Daniel Jones is not a complete quarterback. His pocket presence is awful. He takes hits that he shouldn't. There's also a huge drop-off with his play when he can't target the first read. And, his accuracy beyond 40 yards has been a weakness.
However, the Giants may have figured out how to get the best from Jones, and it involves borrowing from NFC East rival Philadelphia. Carson Wentz isn't a complete quarterback, either. Went hangs in the pocket too long, his lack of refined footwork leaves him in awkward positions after drops longer than three steps and ruins his accuracy on rhythm passes, and he can't hit the water in the rain when it comes to targets exceeding 40 yards and delivered in the rhythm of the drop and a hitch.
Philadelphia fixed that with shotgun and pistol looks, minimal drops, and a quick-hitting passing game while also encouraging Wentz to run. When the Eagles are healthy, Wentz is a good fantasy passer and facilitates a talented surrounding corps of players. He can also be a playmaker in certain situations, which leads fans to believe he's more than he really is.
On Sunday, the Giants encouraged Jones to run the football and Jones earned 64 yards and a touchdown. Jones also ran more in the red zone than he attempted passes.
Although he didn't score as a passer, Jones had success with multiple vertical routes (I define this as a range of 28-42 yards) where he only needed a short drop of 1-3 steps to deliver an accurate pass.
Cincinnati, Seattle, Arizona, and Cleveland give Jones a four-week slate of defenses after the Week 11 bye that makes him an intriguing stretch-run option--especially if your team is best with injuries to the quarterback position.
7. What to expect from the Saints offense under Jameis Winston
No video analysis here, just an observation from past viewings. Drew Brees is among the best in the game as a processor of information, especially with quick and accurate red-zone decisions. Winston has struggled as a red-zone decision-maker for most of his career.
Although a lot of media whines about Taysom Hill cutting into Brees' red-zone snaps, it was because of Brees' ability to convert. With Brees out indefinitely due to a collapsed lung, rib, and shoulder injuries, Jameis Winston should expect to see at least as much Hill if not more of Hill running the show in the red zone.
While Winston's big arm and aggressive style will lead to a rise in deeper passing, expect a decline in red-zone efficiency.
8. Mike Evans has a recurring over-privileged streak that can hurt fantasy GMs
I'm a fan of Mike Evans' skills. I'm not a fan of his approach to the game. It has been inconsistent as a pro. Four years ago, Evans had a dip in production after posting a top-three season at his position the year prior.
Although most receivers would love a 71-catch, 1,001-yard, 5-score season, Evans has far greater upside than most receivers. He had become complacent as a route runner, especially against tight man coverage.
Opposing cornerbacks could win with physical play against Evans despite possessing the size and strength to dominate. This happened because Evans expected to dominate but didn't work at his craft.
He re-dedicated himself to the details of the game, got into great shape, and had two years of production expected of him in 2018-19. After having his best two-year stretch and Tom Brady arriving in town this summer, Evans reported in great shape and had the strongest rapport with Brady of any receiver during training camp.
When the regular season began, Evans and Brady have had the worst rapport of the receivers. Evans cut short a route against New Orleans that led to an interception and it was the first of multiple route misunderstandings between the two.
On Sunday, Evans seemed to expect calls to go his way and didn't play with the intensity of effort befitting a top professional paired with one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time.
I know this is a subjective interpretation of Evans' play, but I think Evans expects to get calls when defenders get physical, and he doesn't finish plays when it happens. He also has a tendency to let physical players dictate terms to him that he should never allow.
By no means does this ruin him as a fantasy option. He's on track for a 64-catch, 822-yard, 13-score season. However, this is a significant drop in catches and yardage from previous campaigns. Some of this has to do with his role changing in this Brady-led offense and a high-ankle sprain that has hindered him.
However, he's still making difficult plays.
What I'm noticing might be a sign that his days as a top-10 option are nearing an end. The edge he played with might be fading. There have been moments where he plays with the attitude of a corporate or government long-timer who forgets that tenure doesn't earn you anything when judged on the merits of production. If he can invigorate his approach this year, he should finish as a top-10 fantasy receiver.
If not, we may see a precipitous slide next year.
9. Fresh Fish Special of the Week: Drew Lock
Fantasy football is a cruel place. We're always searching for the weakest link. While we don't want anyone facing the wrath of Hadley, we'd loving nothing more than our players to face an opponent whose game has come unglued on the field.
In the spirit of "The Shawshank Redemption," I provide my weekly shortlist of players and/or units that could have you chanting "fresh fish" when your roster draws the match-up. This week's special is Drew Lock, who believes if he stares down safeties long enough that he'll dissolve them with his laser focus.
In football theory, the post vs two high safeties is the correct vertical choice. In the real world, the QB has to sell the safeties he’s going elsewhere.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 16, 2020
The safety who makes the INT was in position because Drew Lock stares this down from beginning to end. #BroncosCountry pic.twitter.com/LlreCJc6LK
In his imagination , Drew Lock saw a last-second back-shoulder adjustment against Carl Nassib that Noah Fant would catch.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 16, 2020
In reality, Nassib was not a hologram and had leverage no matter how hard Lock tried to dissolve but with his gaze. INT No. 3#BroncosCountry pic.twitter.com/fBG7nE2dQ3
As mentioned in last week's Top 10, Lock must learn that he's not special as an arm talent in the NFL, and the sooner the better for his career:
This doesn't make Lock a bad quarterback. However, it's a sober reminder to Broncos fans and fantasy GMs of Lock that too much was made of his final drive against the Chargers last week and he has only played 11 games in the NFL.
He's essentially a rookie with a partial offseason. As such, defenses are going to adjust to what he does well and figure out ways to bait him into things he doesn't. For Lock to develop into the player he's capable, he must come to grips with who is he is and who he isn't.
Right now, he's a light-switch player who turns his technical and conceptual smarts on and off rather than a thermostat player whose preparation and methods are grounded in consistency.
A talented thrower who dazzled in high school and against lesser college opponents, Lock's coaches may have preached good fundamentals to Lock, but it is clear from Lock's play that they let him get away with his lazy footwork and arm talent.
Against lesser opposition, Lock succeeded or, at least didn't fail, and fans and media compared him to Patrick Mahomes II II (yeah, they went there). Once Lock faced top competition and tried to be more disciplined with his feet and decisions, he couldn't play this style at a high level because it wasn't an embedded part of his game. And when he leaned on these bad habits he also struggled.
Since no one benched him for this behavior, Lock thinks this ability is an essential part of his game. It's not. In fact, it's most often an anchor that's weighing down his game rather than buoying it.
If he figures this out and finds the very small area of his play where he can use these skills, he can become a good NFL starter. Otherwise? it could drown his career. It's early enough that his maturation is possible.
If he can use the criticism to inspire his work ethic, he'll be fine. If he's defiant about sticking with the approach that got him to the NFL, expect a decline similar to Mitchell Trubisky.
10. Fresh Fish: Week 10
Here are a few others making the list this week:
- Russell Wilson: This is the second week in a row where Wilson delivered an interception in the end zone that he could have avoided as well as his second week with multiple turnovers. Is he being asked to do too much? No. It's just that Seattle is a one-dimensional team. It can throw. It can't run, defend the run, or defend the pass.
- Seattle Defense: I'm often critical of L.A. Rams coach Sean McVay for his stubborn approach to teams that game plan successfully against his favorite offensive plays and he still uses them. It didn't matter on Sunday, because anything would have worked against Seattle when you consider the plays that didn't work against the Bills and Giants were successful against the Seahawks.
Exhibit G already...everything that they tried and failed with vs the Bills and several others is working vs Seattle pic.twitter.com/qJ7BrBhKYp— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 16, 2020
Keep Houston's defense on the list because a game of limiting Baker Mayfield, who can't even deliver accurately on short routes designed to give receiver's YAC opportunities doesn't make up for their ills.
The next play... pic.twitter.com/MTUyVpDwyf— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 15, 2020
Cleveland's ground game delivered on expectation against Houston.
Thanks again for all of your feedback on this column. Good luck next week and may your bold call come true.